Balancing the Newscasts : NPR OmbudsmanDuring this edge-of-the-seat presidential race, listeners are paying particularly close attention to NPR newscasts for balanced coverage. Is NPR meeting listeners' expectations and how can it do a better job?
NPR carries 37 newscasts around the clock each day. In the morning and evening slots, newscasts air every 30 minutes. Otherwise, reports are hourly.
Since newscasts air across 768 public radio stations and overseas on Armed Forces Radio, there is more exposure in general to newscasts — and more repeat exposure during the course of the day — than any NPR show, said Lori Kaplan in NPR's audience research department.
This gives NPR's news segments significant weight and a great deal of journalistic responsibility. Network newscasters have to work hard to pack a lot of news into a five or nine-minute newscast. And they have to ensure news is fair and balanced, as NPR's ethics code demands.
It's not easy, particularly during this edge-of-the seat presidential campaign.
Lincoln Smith of Seattle believes that NPR newscasts are "consistently" unbalanced when it comes to presidential hopefuls, John McCain and Barack Obama.
"On almost every news break Obama gets much more air time, usually with sound bites from a speech," wrote Smith, "while McCain will often get nothing or one sentence which often comes off as being slanted."
Other listeners say the opposite: that NPR gives more air time to McCain.
Obama doesn't get more airtime than McCain, or vice versa, though it's easy to see why a listener — who might hear just one or two newscasts a day — would believe that's the case.
NPR newscasters are keenly aware of their responsibility to provide balance when airing news about McCain or Obama, said Greg Peppers, executive producer of NPR newscasts.
"The mandate is balance, balance, balance," Peppers said. "To be fair, it has to be even. It does a disservice to listeners to not be balanced."
If there's a story in a news segment on one candidate, Peppers wants something on the opponent, too. So if McCain's voice is on air, and Obama is taking the day off, Peppers said the newscaster should mention what Obama is doing that day.
It sounds good in theory.
But including both candidates in a news segment does not always sound "even" or "balanced." Here's why. In some newscasts, a newscaster might, for example, use tape of Obama's voice at a campaign appearance and pair it with written copy the anchor reads aloud about McCain, sans a sound bite.
That can sound to the ear like Obama is receiving more attention — even if more time is devoted to McCain.
"When you give one candidate's voice and not the other, it can really create some problems in terms of elevating the perspective of one," said Dhavan V. Shah, a University of Wisconsin professor who specializes in political communication. "For example, if NPR directly quotes [Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah] Palin and then a newscaster says that Obama repudiates what she said, what gets reinforced is hearing the Palin quote. That's what troubling when you are not letting candidates speak for themselves."
Another way listeners might think they hear bias is when a newscaster runs a brief story (known as a "spot") by an NPR correspondent traveling with one candidate, and balances it with a few written lines read aloud about the other candidate. Since a reporter spot (with a newscaster-read introduction) tends to be 1 minute, there's not much time left for the other candidate in a five-minute newscast that attempts to cover the top news of the nation and world.
NPR's 13 newscasters are all seasoned journalists trying to be as fair as possible given time constraints and campaign vagaries. Some days, a candidate makes no news, perhaps because he or she is taking the day off. Some days, newscasters have tape of one candidate and not the other. Some days, an NPR reporter assigned to one candidate files a spot from the road while the reporter with the other candidate is stuck on the press plane and can't file a story.
And because there are 37 newscasts each day, odds are that one of those situations will be in place for any single newscast. As a result, a listener hearing a newscast at 8 a.m. might hear Obama's voice but only newscast copy about McCain, while a listener at 8 p.m. might hear the opposite.
"There's no formal system but we are always trying to, at least, mention the other candidate if we have, say, a 50-second spot," said newscaster Jean Cochran, who began at NPR in 1981. "With the nature of news, it's never going to be 50-50. But I assure you we're not working to get any particular candidate elected."
Newscaster and producer Paul Brown, who's frequently on the air weekday mornings, noted that favoring one candidate over the other would be both journalistically unsound and counter-productive. "How on earth would it be in my interest at NPR to present any story unfairly?" he asked. "It would only hurt my credibility. I have no interest in favoring one side over the other. I'm sure what we do is far from perfect but you do your best."
What if NPR clocked minutes to make sure each candidate gets equal time on a newscast?
Brown doesn't favor that idea. "We are covering news," he said. "One candidate may say something very significant in four seconds that may take the other candidate 14 seconds to say."
Brown says he tries to make sure all the main candidates, and their major proposals, are represented. Last week, he noticed a discrepancy between coverage of Sarah Palin and her Democratic counterpart, Joe Biden.
"Since I really hadn't heard Biden's voice much, I went looking to see if I could find him addressing issues," said Brown, who found tape of Biden at a Florida rally. He then paired it with tape of Palin at a Pennsylvania rally. "Palin is making a lot of news because she's new and dramatic," he said. "But listeners need to hear from Biden too."
One way the newscast unit attempts to reach balance is to try to make up in the next newscast what wasn't in the current one.
"When I'm scheduling several newscasts ahead, if I have a reporter spot on one candidate, then I'll try to use the opposing candidate in the next hour," said senior producer Carol Anne Clark Kelly, who manages the newscasts after Morning Edition and before All Things Considered. "I look at the whole day but listeners may only hear one newscast."
NPR news executives often ask that listeners evaluate coverage over a long period and not make judgments based on one story or one newscast. That is a fair request when evaluating long-running Middle East coverage or NPR's overall presidential campaign coverage.
But it may not be realistic to expect listeners to evaluate newscasts over a long period of time.
In talking with the morning newscast team, Dave Mattingly suggested what could be a workable solution. Mattingly has spent 12 years as a morning newscasts producer. He acknowledges that sometimes, under the current system, the presidential campaign coverage in the newscasts can appear unbalanced.
"I can understand how it might sound when you hear a reporter on the road and you have a 'reader' [copy read by the newscaster] on the other candidate paired with it," said Mattingly. "But slighting a candidate is never done on purpose."
As an alternative, Mattingly suggested using tape from each candidate, along with a summary of news explaining the context of the tape [called a "write-around"] read by the newscast anchor. "To the listener's ear, a clip of each [candidate] with a write-around by the anchor probably sounds the most balanced," said Mattingly.
Peppers agrees it would be ideal to have both candidates' voices in a segment. "We often do in the form of actualities," he said. "However, we also have to put reporter spots on the air. The listener wants the reporter spots from the campaign trail. That's what brings listeners closer to the news."
Shah believes something like what Mattingly suggested might help NPR newscasts achieve better balance.
"How journalists frame and focus certain things can really sway how people think about it," said Shah. "The best model would be to use direct quotes from each candidate and roughly equal time as possible but then have the journalist" set the candidate statements in context.
The reality is that most listeners don't listen as closely as NPR's newscasters might hope. As listeners drive to work or go about their daily lives, they don't always distinguish between an anchor inside an NPR studio and a reporter covering a candidate in Ohio.
They listen, I think, far more closely for balance. And, for many listeners, balance means that the candidate they favor gets at least equal time with his opponent.
As interest in the election continues at an all-time high, the newscast unit should try to make Mattingly's suggestion that candidates do more talking its goal.